Profound in translation
Speaking with Xu Xiao Yong, the sculptor from China responsible for Royal Selangor’s Celestial Blessings collection is a disarming experience. Within seconds of meeting, the interview turned into a lesson, the interviewer turned into a student eliciting pearls of wisdom from a sage. Questions about design philosophy and inspiration turn into, in Xu’s thoughtful words, profound answers.
“In Buddhism, there is the concept of ‘kong’ – emptiness," he muses. “This is a void that we ourselves feel. So when I design, I am filling this new space, this ‘kong’, with my sensibility, which itself is influenced by my memories, my history and my heart. I start with intention, and just let it happen. It is pre-destination. A design happens because it is meant to happen."
To give an example, Xu cites the Buddha. In the beginning, he was represented by leaves and footprints. Then when decorative arts advanced, he took on human form. But in India, Buddha looks Indian. In China, Buddha looks Chinese, and even then, depictions of Buddha in China differ across history. “To make a design relevant for today, we have to understand contemporary needs. We can admire a statue from the Tang Dynasty, but we can never truly understand it because we don’t live in the Tang Dynasty. Today is today, and yesterday is yesterday," he says.
So even though his Celestial Blessing collection for Royal Selangor is rooted in Taoist mythology, they are decidedly modern in depiction – Guan Yin is serene and almost sensual, while Guan Gong is arrestingly formidable. It was the first time Xu worked with pewter, and the grey of the metal gave him a sense of peace, which he imbued into the collection, with new pieces yet to come. “Pewter is very zen to me", he says, “It starts as a flamboyant metal then slowly stabilises and matures, gaining serenity with age."
A member of the United Nations Arts Initiative, Xu asks three questions of himself when designing: Is this meaningful? Is this right? And is this fun? The answer has to be yes to all three before he would agree to it, because motive shapes all designs. Ambivalence will impair the product. “Time can come and go, but what unites the design of a century ago and today is the human element. If I enjoy making something, then everyone else will feel it too."